Author Mem Fox and Donald Trump’s chilling of America

Mem Fox reads to kids

Author Mem Fox reads to her audience. Image courtesy Adelaide Advertiser.

The recent mistreatment of Australian author Mem Fox by US Customs and Border Patrol heralds a little-discussed effect of President Trump’s plan to shut the door on immigration. Her detention by CBP could have a chilling effect on the cross-fertilization of ideas that makes open societies so powerful. As Trump attacks illegal immigration, he is sending a message that any visitor is suspect, and Fox’s experience underlines the argument.

In February, Fox was en route to Milwaukee to attend a conference on literacy, tolerance, and inclusion. Fox is the author of numerous children’s books, including Ten Little Fingers, Ten Little Toes, and Possum Magic. At the airport, she was detained for two hours by CBP on a visa problem, which turned out to be the CBP’s error. She has visited the US 117 times.

“In that moment I loathed America,” she says. “This is not the way to win friends.”

America is proud of its history of openness to new ideas from the outside. That’s part of our heritage of welcoming immigrants, because they bring new energy and approaches that enrich us, figuratively and literally. The country also welcomes visiting artists and writers for the same reason, in hopes that cross-cultural fertilization raises everyone up. During the Cold War, despite the hostility, the Soviet Union and the U.S. each sent ambassadors in the form of writers, symphonies, dance companies, and visual artists in the interests of peace. It took the edge off the mutual suspicion.

If I were stopped at the border, how I would prove I was a writer? Compose a sequel to War and Peace?

Which artists and writers will now think twice about visiting, given Fox’s experience, and the Trump Administration’s tone? Engineers may already be thinking about staying away. A Nigerian engineer was stopped at the border and told to prove his expertise by taking a test. If I were stopped, how I would prove I was a writer? Compose a sequel to War and Peace?

In effect, every visitor is an ambassador, and there are signs they are going elsewhere. According to travel industry figures, searches for on flights to major US tourist attractions are down by nearly half. Not only does the country suffer intellectually, these drops have a major economic impact on tourism-dependent communities. The industry says the “Trump slump” has cost $185 million in business.

America is in danger of losing its reputation as a welcoming light to all peoples, whether to stay or to visit. Some want us to close our doors to the stranger. If they win, we’ll all be the poorer.

What do you think? How will we maintain our reputation for openness?

Ted Chiang’s sci-fi genius arrives with laser-like precision

cover art for Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Possible spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen Arrival.

The release of the movie Arrival last month prompted my interest in Seattle science fiction writer Ted Chiang. He has published only 15 short stories, novelettes, and novellas in print, including “Story of Your Life,” the inspiration for Arrival. He’s won Nebulas, Hugos, and host of other awards, far out of proportion to his published output, judging by most other writers I know. As a writer who’s only published one short story (not counting self-publishing), I had to read more by this man.

Penguin Random House has collected eight of his stories in Stories of Your Life And Others, including “Story,” most of them the award winners. It’s a remarkable collection that may become part of the core canon of science fiction and speculative fiction in general. None of the the stories hits a weak note, though I have favorites among them.

If there’s a single word that describes them all, it’s “precise,” demonstrating Chiang’s penchant for picking only the right words and phrases, and crafting every sentence as if his writing life depended on it. Chiang’s style may reflect his training in computer science; every line of “code,” if you will, is elegant and purposeful, and the result is often mesmerizing. Continue reading

Review: Gold Fame Citrus is tangy, acidic, and tasty

Gold Fame Citrus cover

Gold Fame Citrus is as tangy and acidic as a California orange.

Climate science encourages the public to imagine global warming as a decades-long desiccation, a slow transformation of liquid water to vapor locked in the atmosphere, turning the planet into a wasteland of deserts, as if everything is dropped into a saucepan over high heat and cooked into Nevada. In speculative fiction and fantasy, the image often plays out in the planet-girdling sand dune, whether it’s Frank Herbert’s Dune or George Lucas’ Tatooine. Claire Vaye Watkins finds the metaphor useful in her debut novel Gold Fame Citrus, in which the Amargosa, a dune sea that covers much of the Southwest, is central to her dystopian world of prophets, prostitutes, survivors, and assorted characters at home in a Mad Max movie.

The Amargosa Desert is a real place, which Watkins knows, having grown up in the Mojave Desert and in Pahrump, Nev., a stone’s throw from Death Valley. Her intimacy with these landscapes puts her prose on a par with other great Western writers, such as Edward AbbeyJohn Steinbeck, and Ivan Doig. Almost no other writer captures the utter desolation of these places without a hint of romantic disrespect; Watkins loves and fears the desert in the same breath. Continue reading

Review: Why aren’t ‘serious’ writers writing about climate change?

Cover for Anthropocene Fictions

Why aren’t more literary realists getting real about climate change?

Policy wonks, eco-alarmists, and right-wing denialists dominate the climate change conversation with boring reports, deafening polemics, and forgettable op-eds. The mound of non-fiction reaches to the moon, and we’re no closer to a collective response to a warming world. In contrast, the number of novels written with climate change themes might not reach the top shelf in your living room.

Where are the novelists, author Adam Trexler asks? Where are the imagineers using story to organize, illustrate, and give emotional meaning to the nearly invisible fact of a heating planet? They’re out there, he says, but they’re lurking among the paperback thrillers in airport newsstands and on science fiction shelves in mega-bookstores. With a few exceptions, the “serious” literary world is completely ignoring the most important challenge to Homo Sapiens in 10,000 years.

Trexler builds the title of his book, Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change, published the University of Virginia Press, on a relatively new argument: humanity is the most potent geological and ecological force on the planet since the last Ice Age. The Anthropocene Era started with the invention of agriculture, but it picked up steam in the 18th century with the burning of coal to fuel industry, which turned the atmosphere into a dump for waste carbon. When a real-life “greenhouse effect” was first identified by science in the mid-20th century, intrepid sci-fi and thriller writers found fertile ground for storytelling. Continue reading

Review of Voyage: Embarkation

Voyage Embarkation cover

Voyage: Embarkation’s cover was designed by Aubry Kae Andersen, who also created 14 interior illustrations.

Some novels demonstrate how a writer evolves over time and practice. His or her style changes over the years it takes to write a novel. Some themes are important early, and they’re supplanted by others later on. That’s the case with Zachary Bonelli’s first science-fiction novel, Voyage: Embarkation, published in 2013 by Fuzzy Hedgehog Press. The novel is the first in the author’s Voyage Along the Catastrophe of Notions series. Bonelli says the novel began in 2000 as a series of posts on a fantasy forum. Written in high school, the posts formed the early chapters of the book. Though the novel is really a series of loosely connected anecdotes, the reader can see how Bonelli’s writing becomes more confident and polished by the end of the book’s 515 pages.

The novel’s arc focuses on Kal Anders, a teenage boy with an unusual allergy that exiles him to an alternate Earth populated with giant house cats. Nanotechnology forms the core of his ability to visit Earths in other, parallel timelines via the “metaxia,” described as “the unspace between universes.” He meets Tria, a virtual brother, who tags along on the protagonist’s adventures, and he encounters worlds ranging from the uninhabitable to an update of the old TV series Fantasy Island. Much of the action takes place in and around variations of Chicago and the surrounding geography near Bonelli’s childhood home. Important themes are intolerance, sexual identity, loneliness, and the acceptance of things one cannot change.

As a first novel, Voyage: Embarkation is an imaginative experiment, with its episodic structure and unpolished narrative. A few of the episodes, such as “Benevolence,” about a world dominated by a monster made of mud, stick in your mind, while others are forgettable. “Liberty” is a transparent rant against a crazy boss and the self-repression of workers in a technology corporation. (Bonelli works a day job as a programmer.) Mature readers who have fumed at the stupidity of management will immediately recognize Kal’s experience at the hands of his supervisor. The episode comes late in the novel, and it’s something Bonelli could not have written as a teenager. It’ll be interesting to see how he matures further in his next works.